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High speeds, big pack, small roads: a nasty mix

Well, there was another pileup, two to be exact, in the final kilometersof Saturday’s stage to Avranches. And there was a last-kilometer attack,two to be exact, on the uphill finish — resulting in a breakthrough stagevictory for Aussie Brad McGee. Both the crashes and the attacks were predictable,but no one likes to see riders climbing into ambulances, nursing injuredlimbs as they struggle to the finish, or stopping to help their fallenteam leaders. The crash 5km from the finish that dumped riders in ditches was a resultof the symptoms that caused similar mass pileups in 1997. Back then,

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By John Wilcockson

There are no Spinacis to blame. The organizers have to take the rap for this mess.

There are no Spinacis to blame. The organizers have to take the rap for this mess.

Photo: Graham Watson

Well, there was another pileup, two to be exact, in the final kilometersof Saturday’s stage to Avranches. And there was a last-kilometer attack,two to be exact, on the uphill finish — resulting in a breakthrough stagevictory for Aussie Brad McGee. Both the crashes and the attacks were predictable,but no one likes to see riders climbing into ambulances, nursing injuredlimbs as they struggle to the finish, or stopping to help their fallenteam leaders.

The crash 5km from the finish that dumped riders in ditches was a resultof the symptoms that caused similar mass pileups in 1997. Back then, theTour organizers blamed the small handlebar extensions — like the CinelliSpinaci — that were in vogue back then. But the real reason was the organizersthemselves. As on Saturday, they routed a key part of the final kilometers(this time between 7km and 3km to go) on a back road too narrow to accommodatea 180-strong peloton moving at more than 60 kph. All it takes is a singlelapse of attention or a risky maneuver, and suddenly a score or more ridersare hitting the pavement or heading into the ditch.

The road this time was barely 15 feet wide and the pack was racing flatout to reel in a break. The crash happened near the head of the pack, andso three team leaders went down. Didier Rous of Bonjour had to abandonwith a broken right clavicle. Oscar Freire of Mapei-Quick Step tumbledonto his back — which was injured for much of last year before he won hisworld title in October — and he finished the day 6:23 behind the riderswith whom he expected to be contesting the stage win. And Christophe Moreauof Crédit Agricole — France’s best hope of a high GC finish — fellon his tailbone and lost another four minutes, to drop down to 136th place,10:23 back of the yellow jersey.

The second crash was less spectacular, but almost as destructive. Itcame just after the peloton left the narrow D103 road onto the wider N2175,a former route nationale — where the organizers had removed a number oftraffic islands and patched over the area with new asphalt. Again, it happenednear the head of the pack, and involved two of the Tour’s top stars, LanceArmstrong and Laurent Jalabert. Luckily, neither was injured, and the 27seconds they conceded shouldn’t prove a major handicap

It’s hard to imagine that all this happened heading into Avranches,a hilltop town where 68 years ago, on a similar July day, a violent battletook place between the troops of General George Patton and the Nazi Army.Patton won and is forever remembered here by a monument and a town squarethat has been designated U.S. territory. This is where stage 7 of the Tourde France ended on Saturday — this time packed with cycling fans enjoyinga momentous sunny afternoon.

On Sunday, there will be hundreds of thousands more spectators liningthe 217.5km course across cycling-mad Brittany to Plouay. The festive moodwill be heightened because it is the 14th of July, the national independenceday of the French. There will again be high speeds because the forecastnorth wind will be moistly favorable. There will again be big pack of atleast 180 heading into the closing kilometers. And they will again be squeezedinto narrow roads, this time on the 13.5km finishing circuit that hostedthe world road championships two years ago.

Maybe this time, the day before a vital individual time trial, the breakawayswill be allowed their freedom, and all those ingredients of danger willnot produce the chaos it did on Saturday.

DETAILSOF STAGE 8: St. Martin-de-Landelle to Plouay, 217.5km.
INTERMEDIATE SPRINTS: at Bazouges-la-Perouse (35.5km),Montauban-de-Bretagne (86km) and Noyal-Pontivy (160.5km).
CAT. 4 CLIMBS: at Bécherel (72km), Kervalen (187km)and Ty-Marrec (214km).

WEATHER FORECAST: Sunny skies for most of the day withno chance of rain. Temperatures in the mid-60s to low-70s and winds fromthe north, with gusts up to 20 mph.